Ontario disabilities group says wait time for fixing and replacing electric wheelchairs is too long Bobby Hristova, CBC News
Posted: Jan 13, 2022
It was 4 a.m. on Boxing Day and Shawn Brush was stuck.
He was trying to watch Christmas movies when his electric wheelchair broke again. This time, it froze in a tilted position. The 62-year-old Burlington, Ont., man was trapped.
“I couldn’t get in or out,” he said. “My phone was on my bed. I managed to get into the bedroom. I drove in backward and was able to get halfway out of the chair and call the fire department.”
Brush has been waiting two years for a new chair, and he’s still waiting. The reason, he says, is a time-consuming bureaucratic process that slows down everyone who needs assistive devices. He’s not speaking out for himself, he says, but for others in his position.
“There’s all kinds of people going through this,” he said. And “there’s not one person I can blame.”
Brush has morquio syndrome. The condition causes dwarfism, softer bones and a pigeon chest, among other complications. He’s an Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) recipient.
It doesn’t stop Brush from performing music, but he lives with chronic pain and says he’s been in and out of a wheelchair for as long as he can remember.
‘If it’s broken, it’s not just inconvenient, it is incapacitating’
In 2015, Brush got a new electric wheelchair through Ontario’s Assistive Devices Program (ADP). The program helps people pay for wheelchairs and other devices.
He says he generally has to replace it every five years. By 2020, Brush says, it had broken down multiple times.
He says he has had months-long waits for repairs.
For example, he says in 2018 it took him from May to October to get the front wheels of his chair replaced, which means for most of that time, he was without the electric wheelchair. He had to use alternatives like a manual wheelchair.
Tracy Odell, president of Citizens With Disabilities Ontario, says she and others have dealt with long waits too. To get approval for new seating for her electric wheelchair, she says, she needed a physiotherapist to agree it was needed.
“Most people in my position, we know what we need. You don’t need someone to tell you you’ve outgrown your shoe,” Odell said.
She says she waited about 6 months before getting authorization, but she still hasn’t heard if they have the part needed to make the fix.
“If it’s broken, it’s not just inconvenient,” she said. “It is incapacitating.”
The province says service providers don’t always have specialized parts, and has to order from the manufacturer. There are also global supply chain issues.
Applying for a new wheelchair
In January 2020, Brush says, he tried getting assessed by a occupational therapist to begin the process for a new wheelchair. He applied through ADP and contacted Motion, the only vendor responsible for his chair.
COVID-19 delayed the process into the summer, he says, before an ADP representative, a Motion representative and his occupational therapist brought him a test chair and completed the paperwork for funding by summer time.
Brush needs a personalized chair that includes features ADP doesn’t consider essential. If it isn’t deemed essential, Brush has to pay for it with his own money.
For example, a light, a footrest to alleviate the pressure on his spine and a feature that helps him elevate his seat aren’t covered.
“It allows me to be a bit more independent by reaching things in the cupboard and the fridge and cooking – I also really enjoy it for my social interaction and to sit at a bar and talk to people in the eye, and for dancing,” Brush said of the elevation feature.
The total cost of the wheelchair is roughly $27,000. Brush had to pay about $12,000. He was able to raise that money through fundraisers and donations.
But Brush had to wait until August 2021 – about a year – for Motion to sort out issues with the footrest. There was uncertainty if the footrest would work in the way he wanted.
Stuck in a broken wheelchair
It wasn’t until December 2021 that he could get the measurements he needed to place his order, but family illness provided another setback. In the meantime, he’s using a customized manual wheelchair.
Maria Handley, Motion’s Ontario central west regional director, said in a statement that the company tries to serve people the best it can.
“The funding application process for the purchase of a device (e.g. Assisted Devices Program in Ontario) and the funding approval process for an equipment repair (e.g. Ontario Disability Support Program) can vary,” she said. “But it is Motion’s role to work with all members of the care circle to advance the process and provide mobility devices and/or repairs to our joint clients as quickly as possible.”
“For example, Motion retains an inventory of select parts required for repairs as well as works closely with our manufacturer partners for expedited delivery on parts.”
Odell says people dread ordering new wheelchairs because of the laborious process and how frequently wheelchair styles change. She says it takes her about six months to get a new one, but that was before the pandemic.
The approval process for some things, like flat tires and batteries, should be expedited, she says. The companies responsible for the wheelchairs should also have those items in stock, and there should be more than one vendor for electric wheelchairs, not just Motion.
More waiting and some good news
Last week, Brush’s team of workers visited him to confirm the measurements and start to place the order for his new chair. But he faces more hurdles.
The process has taken so long, he must reapply to ADP to get funding for the chair.
He’s also applying to try and cover the costs of the added features like the elevate and footrest. If ADP refuses to fund it, he’ll appeal.
It’s unclear how long all of that will take to figure out.
In the meantime, there is some good news.
The province now allows online ADP applications, which expedites the process.
“As of May 31, 2021, eSubmission has been instituted into the ADP application process and has reduced wait times from 6 to 8 weeks to approximately 2 weeks so clients can receive their devices faster,” the Ministry of Health said in a statement.
Also, after waiting since Boxing Day, Brush says someone was set to arrive on Wednesday to fix his electric wheelchair.
“What needs to happen is change. I’m going to get what I need, one way or another. Going through the frustration of getting it is the problem,” he said. “There has to be a better way.”